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A relief train considered key to the effort to prevent mass starvation in Sudan left from Muglad Saturday for the southwestern town of Aweil after seven weeks of frustration and delays, the government announced.

A statement issued by the Relief and Rehabilitation Commission said the 48-car train was headed for three towns in Bahr el Gazal province with 1,440 tons of sorghum on board. Two of the towns are held by the government and one by the rebel Sudan People's Liberation Army (SPLA).The United Nations in March announced plans to move more than 100,000 tons of food into southern Sudan before the start of the rainy season this month, warning there could be a repeat of last year's disaster in which a quarter-million people starved.

A total of eight relief routes were originally planned but U.N. officials pinned most of their hopes on the train and on Nile River barges, which still have not moved. Only limited amounts of food can be moved on the country's network of dirt roads and small airstrips.

UNICEF director James Grant originally aimed for an April 1 departure date for the first train and later revised the target date to April 15. However, the effort was repeatedly delayed by bureaucratic slowdowns and other problems.

Train workers refused to travel with the train after the ambush of a truck convoy in April that left eight rebel escorts dead and agreed to work only when they were offered life insurance and special hazard pay.

A further hitch developed last week when the government suddenly insisted that two-thirds of the shipment go to army-held areas instead of one-half as previously agreed.

An estimated 2 million people have been driven from their homes in the south by the 6-year-old war.